The history of the Manchester Bee

Our reporter Niall McGuinness digs deep into the history of the Manchester Bee and why it is so symbolic for the city.

As far back as the Roman poet Virgil, bees have been eulogised in verse for their social organisation and their industrious honey-making.

Since its inclusion in 1842, in the Manchester Coat of Arms, the bee as both metaphor and symbol has never left the public imagination, but the different qualities highlighted by successive generations perhaps tell us more about a changing  society than they tell us about the glorious bee. 

In the wake of the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing, the potency of the worker bee as a symbol of unity and defiance was rediscovered and celebrated. It can be seen on the clock face of the Palace Hotel, on the mosaic flooring at Manchester Town Hall and on bins throughout the city.

The Manchester bee was born of the cotton industry that made Manchester rich. For honey, read cotton, for the hive, read the textile mill. One bee may not amount to much, but the collective hive is a force to be reckoned with. For the nouveau riche Victorian city fathers, adopting the bee to embellish Manchester’s coat of arms was a branding exercise – a way of both rationalising and symbolising its domination of textile manufacturing.

I didn’t know that Manchester is the only inland UK city with a sailing ship emblazoned on its Coat of Arms – a detail which celebrates the system of canals which functioned as motorways to deliver coal etc. Above it rests a globe dotted with seven bees to represent the seven seas. The city motto – Consilio et Labore (let’s work together and build together) is in tune with its symbols.

Manchester Coat of Arms: Jza84, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Modern poets take a constructive view of the bee as symbol; Sylvia Plath writes of “winged saviours”. Carol Ann Duffy uses them to symbolise all that is good and worthy of protection. 

But it hasn’t always been so. Around the time that the mills first emerged, Anglo-Dutch social philosopher Bernard Mandeville published his prose-poem, the Fable of The Bees (1714) which scandalised polite society by appropriating the hive’s symbolism to suggest that public benefit derives in part, from private vice.

Mandeville describes a thriving hive that hits the buffers when the bees decide to live by honesty and virtue. As they abandon the drive for personal gain, the economy of their hive collapses, and they go on to live simple, “virtuous” lives in a hollow tree.

Mandeville’s social theory is that self-interest is society’s prime motivator, aided by envy and competition, leading sometimes to exploitation. He implied (bold unambiguous statements could be costly back in the 1700’s) that people were hypocrites for public espousals of religious notions of virtue and vice while pursuing unsavoury practices in their private lives, or exploitative ones in their economic lives. As his book was publicly burned in France, he sought protection as a refugee in London.

In the sense that the outward majesty of the mills concealed within the exploitation of an abject workforce, perhaps Mandeville was on to something. The radical poet William Blake referred in 1808 to “dark satanic mills” for a reason. By 1842, the repression of the Peterloo protest [1819] had given way to incremental reform, stirred by the social conscience. It would take another fifty years before workers obtained a modicum of protection.

As a moral philosopher, Mandeville has been misunderstood; he was wrongly believed to be promoting vice (for example, he argued prostitution should be legalised). But this was not his intention. He said that he wanted to “pull off the disguises of artful men ” and expose “the hidden strings” that drive behaviour.  

 Only unbridled capitalists still argue, like Mandiville did, that greed is good, but it’s probably true to say that the drive for esteem and success can be a springboard for great art and epoch changing inventions. Approximately seventy years before the innovations which mechanised textile production, Mandeville wrote that “the very worst preached public-spiritedness, while reaping the Fruits of the Labour and Self-denial of others, at the same time, indulging their own”. Coincidentally or otherwise, Richard Arkwright, inventor of the water-driven spinning frame, died in 1792 as the wealthiest untitled person in Britain. 

The great Emily Dickinson’s [1830-86] poem, the Pedigree of Honey, has the brevity of a bee-sting. In the sense that it dismisses material values, it is a riposte to Mandeville. Perhaps our choice of friends or partners or motives is too closely linked to wealth or status.

 The pedigree of Honey

Does not concern the bee;

A clover, any time, to him

Is aristocracy.

Your interpretation of Dickinson’s poem is as good as mine; she may alight upon the symbol of the bee to reject social snobbery or the poem can be read from a religious viewpoint; we are all Aristocrats to the Divine arbiter and – Queen bee or drone – the nature of our social achievement will not be of concern at the Pearly Gates. Or, the bee doesn’t reject honey (or love) for superficial reasons. Good things come in all shapes and sizes.

The bees’ universal appeal as a symbol is linked to its selflessness and cooperative spirit. When I think of Manchester and history, I think of the campaign for Free Trade, the cooperative movement and the still alive campaign for a living wage. As Manchester relinquished its position as the leading light of the Industrial Revolution, and other cities adopted the architectural features of 20th century Modernism, the Mancunian Coat of Arms faded from view along with the Gothic and neo-classical buildings which displayed it. 

Once celebrated as a symbol of Victorian belief in an honest day’s work – as reflected in the following imagined conversation between the Butterfly and the Bee in William Bowles’ poem (1762–1850) – I’m confident that the bee isn’t going to buzz off any time soon. 

As a bellwether of environmental well-being, and as a reminder to Mancunians that together, we stand strong, and that our lives are enriched by qualities of sweetness and light, its symbolic appeal has strengthened as its significance has been adapted to the demands of the age.  

Methought I heard a butterfly

Say to a labouring bee:

“Thou hast no colours of the sky

On painted wings like me.”

“Poor child of vanity! those dyes,

And colours bright and rare,”

With mild reproof, the bee replies,

“Are all beneath my care”.

“Content I toil from morn to eve,

And scorning idleness,

To tribes of gaudy sloth I leave

The vanity of dress.”

The appeal to the Victorian mindset of the industrious bee is obvious. Their assessment of the brand was selective, as it is for every generation. However, while avoiding too literal a retrospective critique – foundation myths are built on glory, not facts – a cursory comparative view of the symbol and the reality reveals as much discord as harmony. Historians agree that Victorian society was grabbing, competitive and male-dominated, and that it ruthlessly discarded its weaker members.

How different is the collaborative bee colony, where the worker bees are female, and the drone bees are male and do not have a sting!  One condition of the bee colony made it an apt symbol for 1840’s urban living in Northern England. Birth and death occurs in the hive on a huge scale; in Victorian Manchester, neither its high infant mortality rates nor the short life-spans of its citizens could slow its accelerated growth.

Deansgate, Manchester

 In many senses there was a black and white quality to Victorian life – to its dress codes and its moral judgements. Whereas Mandeville complained that if everyone was good all the time, the taverns and the locksmiths would go out of business, one hundred years later, the Victorians were at a loss to deal with a gin drinking epidemic and rampant prostitution, which Dickens and others linked to industrialisation and the mushrooming of cities like Manchester.

It would take decades before the “labouring bee” had enough disposable income to paint its wings in “colours bright and rare”. The final two lines of the Butterfly and the Bee will have too much starch for today’s Instagram followers, but we get the message.

As long as they keep pollinating and producing honey, we’ll keep singing the Bees’ praises.

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  1. Brilliant story Niall. Loved reading it and learnt something new, which is what it’s all about.


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